An Open Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry: Know Before You Go

February 25, 2013

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
Newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry arrives in the UK at Stansted Airport on February 24, 2013 in Stansted, England. Kerry is embarking on his first foreign trip as Secretary of State with stops planned in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar before returning to Washington on March 6th. (Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images)

Dear Mr. Secretary:

I know you have a lot on your plate as you begin your first trip overseas as Secretary of StateYou’ll be visiting America’s allies in Europe and the Middle East, by my count nine countries in eleven days. According to press reports, the on-going conflict in Syria is going to be at the top of your agenda, which is as it should be. The latest estimates by the United Nations indicate that at least 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since unrest beganHuman rights violations there have been appalling and wide-spread.

While you continue your important work on Syria, however, I hope that you can spare some time for the on-going human rights violations elsewhere in the Middle East.  Sadly, many of these violations are undertaken by America’s allies in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

In particular, I’d like to talk to you about Turkey, one of our closest allies in the region. After a shaky start, US – Turkish relations are now quite strong. Yet, part of being a good friend means being honest. The recent comments of our Ambassador in Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, regarding the state of Turkish human rights were welcome, but they are sadly the exception rather than the rule. America can do more to support human rights in Turkey.

The human rights situation in Turkey is grave, Mr. Secretary. Kafkaesque trials result in long prison terms under Turkey’s bloated anti-terrorism statutes. These laws have resulted in tens of thousands imprisoned, including students, human rights activists, and their lawyersLengthy pre-trial detentions and shoddy care serve to punish even those who have not been found guilty of any crime. Speech deemed “offensive” can easily be prosecuted. The press has also been targeted; indeed, Turkey has earned the dubious distinction of having more journalists in prison than any other country. These arrests are only one part of a larger pattern of crushing critical voices.

Nonetheless, your forthcoming trip to Ankara could not have been better timed for working to address these grave human rights issues. The Turkish government knows that its international reputation has been damaged by these human rights violations and, particularly, by a string of rulings against it in the European Court of Human Rights. In this context, it has begun working on sweeping legal reforms, referred to as the “Fourth Judicial Package.”

This is a historic opportunity to support human rights, Mr. Secretary. It is incumbent on you to urge Turkish authorities to end its dithering and half-measures and truly bring Turkish law into line with international human rights standards. To aid you in your discussions, Amnesty has helpfully worked up a guide to the urgent steps Turkey must take. But the gist of it is this: Turkey must repeal or amend laws that have violated basic rights of freedom of expression, anti-terror laws must be changed to ensure that they no longer prosecute people for their beliefs, but only for recognizable criminal activity.

Turkey is an vital ally to the United States, Mr. Secretary. But we could be a better friend.  And true friendship includes some honesty about self-destructive behavior.

Best of luck on your important trip, Mr. Secretary. I hope you can make it a successful one.


Howard Eissenstat
Turkey Country Specialist
Amnesty International, USA